Arendt’s “Thoughtfulness” & Bourdieu’s “Reflexivity”: Differences, Similarities & Consequences | Part 1

In the opening paragraph of a paper prepared for a meeting of the Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain– “Becoming Thoughtful: Hannah Arendt and the Problem of Good and Evil” (2013), author Jon Nixon recalls Derrida’s prescription for philosophers to reconnect the context of philosophers and their lives, with the philosophy they produced. Although not a universal indictment of philosophy, Derrida was calling out the tendency of philosophers to “regard ideas as largely independent of the circumstances in which they were conceived.” (p. 1) Continuing the paper, Nixon highlights how the connection between events and ideas are fundamental to the work of Hannah Arendt. Much of Arendt’s work and thought was a response to the events and debates of her time so “the interpretation of a text in relation to context is not so much a methodological option as a methodological necessity” (p. 2).

Similarly to how Arendt saw the process of becoming thoughtful as a reaction to actual events, Bourdieu claims that reflexivity, the temporary ability for us to reflect upon and change our social practices (which include thoughtfulness), is a reaction to the world. More specifically, as I have written about previously, reflexivity is the result of an incongruence between one’s habitus and the social field it inhabits. With that in mind, in this article I would like to briefly consider how Arendt’s ideas about thoughtfulness contrast with Bourdieu’s ideas about reflexivity. For example, how can world events, especially those that may not necessarily directly affect individuals affect them anyway by making them become thoughtful, become reflexive, or is there no difference? Similarly, can ideas have this impact or is the beginning of thoughtfulness, or reflexivity, limited to certain situations or parameters?

Overall, Nixon’s paper does not try to systematise, in the same way Arendt never tried to, her works and thought in any comparable way to how Bourdieu does over the course of his writing- the developing of his conceptual “toolbox”. Nixon writes to show how three significant events in Arendt’s life cause her to become not just thoughtful, but reflecting on her own thoughtfulness, allows Arendt to develop her ideas about the connection between thoughtfulness and morality. He explains how her non-commitment to developing an over-arching system of thought sometimes resulted in “apparent self-contradictions or the sense of her not having fully worked her ideas through” (p. 2). Similarly, Bourdieu wrestled with internal conflicts which, in a similarly meta-reflexive action, helped him develop the concept of cleft habitus.

Taking Quentin Skinner’s point about how the history of political philosophy is an on-going argument, and as such, requires us to interpret texts in relation to the general discourse of their times (p. 1-2), Nixon sets the scene for the first event. At only 14 years old, in 1919, Arendt befriended Anne Mendelssohn. Arendt had been forbidden from meeting Anne due to accusations of Anne’s father, a doctor, being accused by one of his patients of improper behaviour. This did not stop a young, headstrong Arendt, possibly acting partly in typical teenage defiance, but also possibly inspired to the kind of spontaneity that would have been considered less than lady-like in the early 20th Century by the bravery seen in the demise of one of her earliest idols, Roza Luxenburg. Further, Anne’s father’s denial of his improper behaviour as the result of anti-Semitism may have been easier to believe to a German Jew in that time.

Any attempts further, for this author at least, to understand Arendt’s early social practice here would be speculative. However, from Nixon’s writing about how “[t]his episode is many ways emblematic of Hannah Arendt’s life and thought” (p. 4), we can argue that in Bourdieusian terms that how “she impelled herself into situations in such a way that the impulsion allowed no get out” (p. 4) and “was fearsomely well read and capable from an early age of prolonged isolated study” (p. 4), rebellion and studiousness formed key, durable dispositions of which comprised her habitus. Further, when considering Arendt’s early school expulsion did not impede her desire and ability to study, we see how this habitus somewhat reflects and signifies the composition of capitals available to her. Her cultural capital was typically Jewish, emphasising the importance of education, yet also familiar with controversy, being secular reformists, and anti-Zionist- which probably also influenced Arendt’s more rebellious impetuses. Her economic capital was obviously enough that she could convert this (in Bourdieusian terms) to access to the kind of education that led to her being such an intellectual powerhouse. Finally, from this encounter and enduring friendship with Anne, another intellectual, we can consider this social capital that maintained, reinforced, and probably developed Arendt’s cultural capital in terms of her intellect (again, in Bourdieusian terms since this capital can be converted into the other forms, and the other forms back again, reflecting the habitus).

In terms of Bourdieusian capitals, the next relationship which Nixon uses to illustrate how events influenced Arendt’s ideas about thoughtfulness is between her and Heidegger. Arendt came to know Heidegger in 1924 as her lecturer at the University of Marburg, where they also became friends and lovers, but in 1926, when transferring to Heidelberg, the relationship ended. “The lifelong influence that Arendt and Heidegger had on each other was, nevertheless, incalculable” (p. 4). And indeed, this influence has interested many philosophers since then, especially those interested in reconciling the disconnect between what Nixon calls Heidegger’s “purity of abstract thought [and] impurity of political judgement” (p. 5).

Most importantly in terms of using Bourdieusian concepts to analyse Heidegger and Arendt’s relationship is the question of how, although Heidegger’s influence on Arendt’s work is clear, does this change how we conceive her “thoughtfulness” as social practice? In terms of her habitus, how significant is Heidegger compared to any other academic she might have gotten so close with? Nixon quotes Ettinger about this point: “There is no doubt that assessing their mutual dependency and the importance each had for the other is key to understanding their lives” (p. 4-5). From what we understand of the overarching Bourdieusian social theory, one could argue that Arendt had an “academic habitus” and was always destined to the social practice of a philosopher and a thinker but that doesn’t explain how her work could be so heterodoxic and controversial, clearly making it go beyond a strategy of distinction which aimed to accumulate more of the Bourdieusian capitals, or even simply practice in a kind of homeostatic way, as habituses usually do.

Arendt’s life was apparently full of moments of “hysteresis”- abrupt moments of habitus and field incongruence. However, it is perhaps wrong to try and systematise these using the Bourdieusian toolbox as though it is universally applicable- perhaps Arendt’s life and thought should remind thinkers using Bourdieu that his theory was purposefully open-ended and malleable, or maybe hers is a quintessential disproof of his social theory, or maybe one of many exceptions that prove the rule. Also possible is that Arendt, like Bourdieu, experienced such regular moments of hysteresis and, hence, reflexivity, we can explain her life, with its contradictions in thought and practice, as showing her to have had a cleft habitus. The difference here between what we might usually consider determinant of a cleft habitus is that it was ideas, beliefs, doxa, that caused much of Arendt’s reflexive practice, rather than the usual disjointed or interrupted social trajectory of an individual.

Thinking about how doxa affects social practices, which include both the social practice of thinking as such, and reflexivity, can then help us understand how doxa themselves can be considered forms of capital. This is much clearer when considering education and how sometimes it not only transfers cultural capital in the changing of students social habits and practices through endowment of knowledge and skills, but transfers beliefs about the world.

As one of two main socialisation influences which form the basis of the most primary, unconscious habitus, education, like family, is mostly predetermined, determining, and indicative of other capitals. This much is clear however it seems that most Bourdieusian research currently focuses on the influence of these in terms of capital transfer, and especially it’s implications for social justice, but not as much on the beliefs that are inherited or taught. In philosophy of education, the main audience of Nixon’s article, these ideas are important because usually moments of hysteresis are unpleasant and can cause significant mental sanctions on habitus. In Arendt’s case, she was able to reflect on her own reflexivity which was largely the result of hysteresis due to significant disconnects between her worldview, the doxic component of her habitus, the expectations about the behaviour of others contained therein, and the actual practices and beliefs of others- especially those of Heidegger. Moreover, we might say that Arendt’s refusal to systematise her thinking was due to her cleft habitus, as a fractured habitus could perhaps only contain fractured doxa- a habitus without a bannister.

Continuing Nixon’s article, the next event in Arendt’s life discussed is the trial of Adolf Eichmann. Her work on this further helped develop her ideas about thoughtfulness, or rather, thoughtlessness. The relation between thoughtlessness and morality, doxa and ethics, and their implications for education and society shall be the focus of a forthcoming follow-up to this article I shall work on soon. I feel this needs its own article as this is already quite long and would like to again, thank readers and, as usual, explain my lack of regular uploads is due to my lack of economic capital in terms of time- I have to work my regular low wage job to fund this work so not only have less time to read and write, I am so tired!


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